The Hope-Western Prison Education Program operated by Hope College and Western Theological Seminary to provide a Christian liberal arts education to incarcerated men at Muskegon Correctional Facility has received approval from the Higher Learning Commission.
The commission, which is the college’s accreditor, has provided formal approval of Muskegon Correctional Facility as an “additional location” to the Hope campus and to include incarcerated students among the student body. Participants in the program can now pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree from Hope while taking classes at the prison.
“Hope College now exists in Muskegon as it has in Holland since 1866,” said Dr. R. Richard Ray, a professor of kinesiology at Hope who is co-directing the program with Dr. David Stubbs, professor of theology and ethics at Western Theological Seminary. “The students in Muskegon are limited to a single major — in Faith, Leadership and Service — but will be engaging in an education as intellectually rigorous and oriented to the liberal arts as their peers on the main campus.”
The Hope-Western Prison Education Program (HWPEP) began as a pilot initiative in March 2019. Through this past summer, seven professors from Hope and Western taught six non-credit courses to 20 incarcerated students enrolled in HWPEP, with 10 seminary and college students serving as assistants.
In an announcement of the program this summer, Stubbs described the program as part of the Christian mission of the college and seminary. “At the heart of a liberal arts education is equipping people with a vision of who they are, who they can be and what human life is all about. These men are changed by that vision.”
Ray noted that programs like HWPEP elsewhere have proven positive effects on prisoners, prison culture and prison systems. For example, he said, studies of similar programs have found a 70% reduction in misconduct incidents, and improved safety and positive culture in prisons. For parolees who participated, results have included a 43% reduction in recidivism and a 13% increase in post-release employment.
The students in HWPEP’s first cohort began distance education coursework for credit this fall. Starting next fall, 20 students will be added each year until the program is fully operational at four cohorts (80 students) in the fall of 2024. The students are being recruited from among the 31,000 male prisoners in the 26-prison system operated by the Michigan Department of Corrections. Prospective students apply to the college and, if accepted, they will be moved to the Muskegon Correctional Facility.
Ray anticipates that the first participants could complete their degrees as soon as May 2025.
Ray and Stubbs emphasize that all of the costs associated with the program are being funded through donations and not taxpayer dollars. A generous donor has committed to match gifts to Western Theological Seminary in support of the HWPEP program up to $100,000 each year for four years, and the program is continuing to seek additional gift support. In addition, Ray noted that the program also hopes to access federal Pell grants to help offset the basic costs of each student’s education.
Additional information about the Hope Western Prison Education Program is available at hope.edu/hwpep